Breaks, Cracks, and All Things Bad
“I knew I was making a mistake and I made it anyway.” — Cassie “Kindle” Caldwell
“See I told ‘em,” the Major Steven Debenham barked as he ran off. “I told the brass that you’ll come. But noooooooo, don’t listen to the Major who managed to blow up himself up in his quals and still get a promotion. He’s obviously an idiot.”
Kindle hadn’t expected the man to have all his marble looking the way he did. This, however, broke expectations. She thought the man to full throttle with no mercy left. What had happened was very much the opposite. The moment she stepped foot in the CEO office, barreling through the glass and leaping over the large desk with the aid of burst from gravity dampener, the Major had lost all interest in the fight. He sprinted past her, her reverted grandpa, her armed cousins and through a narrow corridor at the very back of the room, laughing all the way. A rage boiled inside of her, rough against the scalding power of the Flame also coursing through her. Both were hard to contain; both leaked with every action she took. She started to run after the taunting squeaks of his mechanical legs and madness-soaked laughter, but her grandfather stopped her by the wrist.
“Wait a sec, Cass,” her grandad said, holding his burnt and bleeding eye with his free hand and her wrist with the other. His transformation left as naked as the day he was born. Scars–pink old and red angry ones alike–littered his bony, curled up in a pool of his own blood. His face was stern, blood trickling down his side of his nose and dripping down the tip of his beard one drop at a time. “Look ‘fter your family,” he said, letting go of her wrists and slapping her back with red palm, “and give ‘em hell for all of us, will ya?” He smiled the proudest smile he had ever given to her. “I’ll be alright.” Drifter slumped his back against the shattered bookshelf, all energy he mustered leaving. “Go get ‘em, buddy.”
Kindle nodded, sprinted after them. He’s gonna be okay, she thought as she sprinted after the Major. He endured worse. The worry persisted, thick as the burning in her legs as she ran. I gotta make it there. She knew that if they found whatever they were looking for, nothing in time or space will keep them from killing everyone she loved. So, she ran. Ran for her father. Ran for her grandparents. For her uncles, aunts, and cousins. For everyone. She needed to stop this now. I help start this, I gotta end it. She gritted her teeth and gripped her weapons tighter in her knuckles.
She followed the sounds of the Major sprint through the long corridor. A strong smell of dust and mold filled her nose down this ancient hallway. The artificial lights–not made of anything Kindle could see that would be electric–flickered on and off throughout, flashing her shadow against the metal walls with every burst. She felt the velveteen touch of the flowers and moss blooming, growing on the tight walls beside her and soon after an odd flex feeling like stepping through a pool of water. Odd, if she gave herself time to think about it. She didn’t have the time. She kept running, the ancient smells giving way to the taste and smell of fresh water and smoke from a kindled fire. She ran for what felt like another mile before she saw the corridor opening like a river into a gulf. When she stepped through the narrow opening and hit by the surge of lights and sounds, she saw that she wasn’t in the building. Not anymore. A ship. Here. How? They would’ve seen it–or at the very least the bunker that housed it. A teleporter? To where?
No. Not the time for that. She needed to look around.
Swallowing her surroundings was tougher than she imagined. Where she expected madness, she found this odd peace. Kindle stood in a circular room, tall pillars of metal and white hard light erected all around them. Green moss and flowers of every color wrapped around the supports giving the large area of a ship the look of an old ruin. Pools of holographic water pulsed underneath her feet, moving silently under a thin layer of translucent metal. Small embers floated aimlessly around them, bouncing on every surface that they could. Upon closer inspection, they weren’t lights, embers, or fireflies at all but some small robots radiating with a familiar energy. She touched one and felt it, raw and untamed but reminiscent of what she felt in the Swamp. The world’s memories flooded her in brief flashes, one after another. It took all her mental power to keep it a bay. This was the source of the Flame. This was her mother’s legacy. Did she even know ‘bout this? Who did?
“Cassie? That you?”
It was her Uncle Pastor’s soft voice, rough and well-worn like the wool of a sweater. She rushed in his direction, following through the small creeks and webs of several metal caves. Tucked in one of the small conclaves sat her grand-uncles and cousin. They looked battered and bruised, torn rags and beaten eyes all around. Surrounding them were bodies of Bluecoat Elites and a single quadruped mechanism made of black metal and thick black cords molded into massive dog-like shape. The broken red eye –the color and texture of a shattered ruby—sputtered in a gout of those small drones, smelling stronger than ever of smoking ash and fire. Kindle kneeled to her family, the tsunami of drones drawing to her in a calm wave of orange at the sight of her. Uncle Pastor leaned forward, shifting his uneven body weight from one side of his body to the other. “Aren’t you a sight for sore eyes,” he said, “we thought that we might’ve been a goner there.”
“Whatcha do, even?” Uncle Thunder asked frowning. “Did you press a button or somethin’?”
Kindle blinked. “What?”
“It just…stopped?” Uncle Pit frowned too. He expected a fight or at least a longer one than he got. The face he was making reminded her of Mastiff’s, still but ready for a fight. The similarities unnerved and anger her. The power of the Flames splashed her within her. “The Major slipped by when the door opened, and the thing came out.” He cocked his head towards the large door, covered partly by ivy, leaves, and flowers. “Whatever you did made it stop. I ain’t sure–
The door hummed an interruption.
The nanoswarm once surrounding her spun and rushed towards it. In a steady stream, the droids filtered into a device until it had its fill, started to beep sharply and then settled into a sunset color glow. The light coated the door, piecing together a long holographic face spun into a form by the droids. “NEW USER IDENTIFIED. BREAURIAN ACCESS GRANTED,” it spoke, its long mouth opening wide with every word. The face nodded and disappeared, the door behind it opening. The abyss–an endless, ever-growing unknown–met them on the other side.
“Stay here,” she said, her voice odd in her own throat, “you’re not allowed to enter. Head back.”
Kindle’s body, as though pulled by strings, stepped towards the door with the pleas of her family falling on deaf ears at her back. The door slammed closed with a loud bang. Kindle turned, returning to her sense. Nothing. She couldn’t hear anything on the other side. Her heart sank. At least they’re safe, she told herself. Whether that was true or not, time would tell. She stepped more into the darkness, her sinking heart pumping blood through her body. Her footsteps echoed from wall to wall. No. Not hers alone. Somewhere in this darkness stood the Major, having slipped through the automatic defense while his Bluecoats and her family fought. She had to find him at least. That or a way out and leave him stuck in here. No, you gotta find that Core, it’s important. A wave of urgency replaced her fear and hesitation. She thought it courage or purpose for a moment. Deeper, she knew she was wrong.
The Flame or whatever it had tapped her in the direction. Gentle pushes, here or there. She felt it cool and rise within her with every decision she made. This selfish power pulled her in every direction. Old memories pushed to the forefront of her mind in flashes here and there. She choked it down the memories and focused on the darkness in front of her. One step. Two steps. Three steps. She kept moving, the whispers within her spinning tales within her. She didn’t know what to think. What to do. She hated every second of it. Was this how my mom lived?
After what felt like an eternity, the darkness broke. To her left, she saw something that she hadn’t expected. Through the window, she saw the world she lived in. The planet of C’dar. She hadn’t ever seen it from the outside. The vast size of it was daunting, a massive blue sphere covered in greens, reds, and small flecks of purple land here and there. She lived all her life on that planet, not knowing what it looked like on the outside. One day, she wished to leave the planet as every young Caldwell did at least once. She hadn’t expected that time to be now. She looked around, a sudden realization striking her. She wasn’t on a ship, but on a satellite station in the still orbit. Grandpa or any of this brother never mentioned anything like this before. Perhaps they hadn’t known either. What else don’t we know? Knowledge–like the unknown or space–was both terrifying and amazingly vast.
The Flame urged her forward, pushing her instincts through the winding corridors. Reminiscences of a lost civilization threaded through each room, of people both similar and foreign to the life she saw on the C’dar. Centuries of dust, ivy and mold layered most rooms, some even inaccessible or locked off by the internal system. She turned, winding through living corners, through mess halls, through an infirmary. She hadn’t the chance to look or digest any of it. The Flame pushed her against her to the edge of nausea. She was in a piece of history and she couldn’t savor it. In a trance-like march, she made it to a room labeled nothing more than the Terrarium. This door flung open without any resistance.
The power within her cooled, if only for a while.
The Terrarium was abuzz with red error screens, each blinking on the surface of glass and metal before she stepped foot into the room. At her presence, everything stopped, screens flickering off one by one until none remained. In every direction, there were forests, lakes, cliffs, deserts, and grasslands, each sectioned off in contained areas. A large metal orb spun in the middle of the room, slow and steady beeping. From the center of the orb, a beam swept from landscape to landscape, stopping only to twist the environments here and there. Mountains rose. Rivers changed course. Dunes collapsed. All within seconds. All in a blink of an eye. That was technological power, the legacy of dead civilization lost to time and human errors. The Terracore.
“You came. I thought you might’ve gotten lost for a second there.”
Major Steven Debenham stood in the shadow of the Terracore, arms behind his back. Grandpa and the rest did quite the number on him. The robotic pieces of his body had been melted while the human pieces were covered in dried blood and cracking burns. He stood tall and proud regardless, through sheer madness of him betrayed his cool nature. “Do you know what this is? How it can save thousands of people? No. You don’t. None of you do. You’re out to protect what’s yours. All of you are selfish beyond compare.” The Major turned to her. “But I needed you. Remy Breaux squirreled you away to activate your abilities and all I had to do was push. Make you want to save your family. But now…you’re here. The Shaman has served her purpose–activating Ogoun. I don’t need you or your family anymore. I had a good time but it’s time for me to do what I came here to do.”
The Major was a wolf going for the neck or a bird swooping a fish from the pond. He came at her with bullets. She barely had time to react, to find cover. Glass shattered all around them, breaking the tranquility of creation in favor of destruction. She ran from place to place, trying to create space between her and the Major. She fired back when she could, the satisfying sound of Coal’s chamber echoing through the Terrarium. Any hit she made on him, Debenham ignored as though they were inconvenient taps on the shoulder. Kindle didn’t have that luxury. Shaman or not, she was still flesh and blood and bullets didn’t agree with either of those. She kept running, scrambling to the mountain area. Don’t turn your back against a gun, good way to get shot in the back. Funny, how it wasn’t the new-found powers she had that she was leaning on but words she had heard a thousand times by her grandpa. She would’ve smiled at that if she wasn’t running for her life.
The glass and kinetic field to the mountain area dropped at the sight of her. Lucky thing, that. She assumed it would let her in like everything else, but if she was wrong she would’ve run straight into a glass wall. An embarrassing way to die if it didn’t.
Kindle sprinted through the artificially created land, head turned slightly to keep an eye on the rampaging droid. She created some space; she needed more. She darted through the cover of the land from hill to hill, from cliff to cliff within this small sample size of a world. She jumped over a lip of rocks into the cover of tall crags and cliffs. A rock busted into pebbles from a high caliber bullet near her head and she almost yelped. Shards scraped against her cheek and got into her eyes. Small annoyances, all and all. Those minor distractions added up after a while. One second was enough to kill you. She squatted, shuffling from cover to cover, thinking through her plans. More shards of rocks fell on her shoulders, the bullets spray growing tighter and tighter. She felt the bullets graze her, a warm sting here and there among the cuts and bruises. Block it out, block it out. The feeling of dread mixed in with the thrill. He pushed it all down. Distractions.
Kindle spun around a rock spire, hand still wrapped around the Breaux spear she came with. She listened, waited. She heard the click she had been waiting for. A reload. She had to do it, he had to. With all her strength and some borrowed from the Flame within her, she kicked off a small rock, leaping higher and higher until she hit a plateau. She saw him on the other side, the gatling in his arm spinning and spitting out shells. He looked a bit too late. Kindle leaped through the air, aimed and tossed the spear with all the power she had in that arm. Years of spearfishing with her father taught her that. Years well spent. The purple crystal tipped spear slammed clean into the Major’s forearm. Sparks and a small fire bloomed body. He doubled back both from the shock and the force. She gave him no quarter.
Landing with the grace of a cat, Kindle aimed and fired two more shots of Coal. He used his dead arm and the spear itself as a shield, running behind the crags of the mountain. She would’ve caught him on the transition, but luck wasn’t on her side again. The sweeping light came. It terraformed the landscape of the rock in a sudden burst upwards and providing him a shield that wasn’t there before. Her clean shot barreled into a newly formed rock. She cursed some very improper curses that her pa would’ve popped her wrist for. Stay focused. She reloaded her own gun. Never waste a bullet; never miss one. She took a deep breath, wiping the sweat from her brow. This was far from over.
Kindle heard the man’s soft muttering from behind the newly formed rock range. There were a sickening rip and the clattering of her broken spear to the ground. She had to have hit a human part of him. Had to. That pain was real. “…understand. I don’t get it…” he heard pieces of his muttering but couldn’t see him, distorted here and there, “why put yourself through this effort? What’s the purpose of all this struggle? Why? This technology can help people, change lives. A little sacrifice for the greater good.” His voice was closer, soft against the AI forged winds. “I have a daughter ‘bout your age, two sons younger than that. I’m willing to tear apart a thousand you to make sure they have a life better than mine.” Closer. Too close. He wanted to distract her, have her focus on his words on his–
Whatever hit her, hit her hard. She felt herself flying and then slamming into the dunes of the next contained area yards away. Kindle rolled and rolled, the millions of rough grains coating the inside of her mouth. She spat blood, spit, and sand on to the ground. A sharp pain ran down the entire length of her shooting arm, forearm skin ripped and raw. Coal was tossed out of reach, steadily becoming buried among the whipping sands. What happened? Her mind and vision spun back into focus. Where are you, she thought blinking back tears of agony. She flexed her fingers. Good. She hadn’t broken anything. Where are you? Fear rose in her chest. Was all this for nothing? There were too many questions that need to be answered. For the first time in a while, she felt her age. Lost, confused, and scared. I can’t do this.
She shook her head. No. She had to go on.
“That should’ve killed you,” she heard his voice against the grain of sand. “The Flame must be good for something.”
This time she heard him. Kindle dodged barely, the force of his punching a brief hole in the sandstorm. She was eye to eye with the Major, his cold eyes fixated on her for a kill. He went for another punch, time slowing around her. Was that what hit her before? A simple punch, each with a force of a cannon. Anyone of those should’ve killed her. Bang. Bang. Bang. Each punch was louder than the next, gradually gaining speed. He was recovering, bit by bit. Cyborgs could do that, she knew. She pulled a knife from her back with her uninjured arm between his blows, watching for an opening. Blow after blow. Each perfect. Each with the trained ability of a professional. He ducked in, feet steady against the uneven sand. Not a slip. Not a mistake in sight. She reacted out of fear, plunging her hidden knife at his neck and only stabbed air. He pivoted at the last second, grabbed her by the wrist and yanked her to the ground. She crashed face first into the sand, eyes burning and head pounding. Her shoulder popped, his raw strength twisting her arm behind her back. She screamed.
No more words.
He was gonna kill her.
She clawed helplessly at the sand and roots with her free arm, his strength breaking her other. No. I can’t. I can’t. I can’t die. Sand and blood. The taste of own teeth in her mouth. She shouted again. “Dig deeper. Break everything.” A voice told her. Another joint popped. The pain became all she knew, the only tangible thing her mind. The whispers in her mind grew stronger. “Destroy it all. Survive.” Blood now. Blood everywhere. Breaking bones and open wound. “Destroy it all! Survive! LIVE!” A waft of spice and sweetness struck her nose, followed by a hard push. Whatever tenuous hold she had over the Flame slipped through her fingers. She tried to catch it, but she had a better chance of catching a frying pan from the burner. She lost it and with that loss of control came a power she didn’t know she had. The pain was an inconvenience now. Kindle, or what was left of her, pushed upwards with an one-arm push up and tossed the Major from herself effortlessly.
White and red flames curled around Kindle as she stood. Major Debenham blinked his confusion at her, arm that once held her wrist melted beyond recognition. Sirens screeched, and the blinking red screens returned. Kindle didn’t care to read any of it. Words didn’t matter. Sound didn’t matter. What mattered was that he was gone. She raised her hand, unamused. The nano-droids of the Flames, red and angry, wrapped around her fingers. “Goodbye, Major.” A flash of light left her hand followed by a burst of fire. The stream hit the Major and swallowed him within seconds. Not a scream of pain as she got from earned from her. He didn’t enjoy it when he was breaking her to bits. A job was a job. This was the one he chose.
She walked over, picking up Coal amongst the sand on her way. The Major curled within the dunes, clothes burned away and naked not unlike she found her granddad. A desperate scene. One she might’ve pitied if she felt anything. But, there was a certain poetic justice in that. She dusted off her gun and aimed it at the man’s head. Major Debenham turned and looked up, his eyes remarkably human. “You don’t know what you just did, did ya?” He laughed, curling within the comforts of the sand. “You broke it,” his laughter grew louder, “you broke it. You broke it. “Well. Great,” he deflated. “All this time and nothing to step away with from it.” Kindle touched the trigger. “Well. Guess I gotta go. I’ll see you around, Cassie.” She fired her gun but found no target. A bright light swept the Major away, leaving a hole in the sand where he once was. A recall beacon. He was gone now, safe in a ship.
Kindle would’ve felt bitter about that but again she felt nothing.
The Flames cooled again within her after long minutes of sirens and screaming computer screens. All at once, all her feelings came rushing back to her–the pain in her arms, the warmth of blood on her skin, the fear and the desperation. She stood, looking around the station. There was an automated voice on the intercom. She could barely hear the words over the ache in her own head. She stepped down the sandy dunes, boots digging deep through the sand. The words on the screens became clear. STARFALL PROTOCOL INITIATED. The words sent a panic through her. What had she done? What did she do? Ignoring the pain, Kindle trekked down the dunes back to the middle of the Terrarium. The cold dread within her. What did I do?
The core was a red ball now, crackling arcs of lightning in all direction. She stood frozen, looking at the screens popping up all around her. There was places she recognized on the planet, familiar places she visited throughout her life. Storms brewed on the coast, snow raged on the mountains, giant waves tumbled on the seas. C’dar was falling apart. It struck her. The Flame was the very thing keeping this planet together. This station terraformed the planet as it had in this small sample size, keeping a wild planet tamed in check from orbit. She had ruined that somehow, broke it in her own desperation. Where would she go? Where would her family go after she unknowingly broke the world? Her throat tightened. How would she–
The door behind her opened.
A woman stood in the frame, dark skin glistening with sweat. Her curly black hair was in disarray, but her round eyes took in all the information in a second. The woman locked eyes with Kindle. Her heart pounded her chest, words caught in her throat. The woman rushed over and grabbed her by the arm. “This is not your fault,” the woman said with a voice she only heard in dreams or visions. Kindle knew who she was, and worst didn’t know how to feel. “We have to go. We have to go now!” The woman shouted over the failing systems that Kindle somehow overloaded but somehow, she didn’t sound angry. There was a crack in her voice so deep that she felt through the woman’s grip. “I’ll explain on the way. And… I’m sorry for what we put you through.”